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Rally For Racial Understanding At Polson High's Homecoming Game

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Nicky Ouellet
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Polson High School's homecoming football game drew crowds of fans and protesters after a couple of students wore "white power" shirts to a school event last week.

A high school homecoming football game on the Flathead Indian Reservation drew fans and protesters alike Friday night. A crowd of about 50 people amassed against the outer fence surrounding the football stadium during halftime. They held signs and chanted “No more hate” across the fence.

On Thursday, two Polson High School students wore handmade t-shirts saying “white power” and “Trump 2016 white pride” to a school pep rally event called “Color Wars,” where students wear certain colors to show class spirit. The two juniors were on the white team.

They changed when asked by school administration, but by that time, photos had circulated widely on social media. The pictures reached Dustin Monroe, founder of the Missoula-based advocacy group Native Generational Change. He helped organize a response to what he called a “racist incident.”

"Our kids should be able to go to school and not worry about people saying one race is better than another," Monroe said.

Monroe stood with his back to the football field and spoke over a megaphone to a crowd bearing signs that said, “Native Lives Matter” and, “Hate is a learned behavior.” As he talked, about 50 students who had been watching the game amassed behind him, separated from the protesters by a chain link fence.

Monroe told them he was disappointed they were separated by the fence, and that students weren't allowed to leave the stadium and then return to the game. 

Some students at the game asked why people from outside their community were making such a big deal about what two students wore, saying things like: "I'm proud of my heritage too, what's wrong with that?" And for a minute, things were very heated, until Polson High School junior Michael Vergeront, who is white, took the megaphone.

"I get where they're coming from, I get where you're coming from," Vergeront said. "I don’t think they were in the right, but at the same time I believe this is rooted in ignorance. They may not have understood the ramifications of their actions."

Vergeront’s speech was short but bridged the gap between the demonstrators and some of his classmates, who cheered him on as organizer Monroe again took the megaphone.

"It's cool man," Monroe said. "So do you guys agree with that? That's where change starts."

The rally lasted slightly longer than the halftime show, and afterwards the crowds on both sides of the fence dispersed. But Dustin Monroe of Native Generational Change says Friday’s rally was not the end of the issue.

"I would like to see accountability on teachers," Monroe said. "I'd like to see some sensitivity training done. I'd also like to see an enforced expelled policy if you get caught wearing something that is that level. We don’t need to have the saying ‘kids are kids.' No. These are actually learned behaviors."

Polson School District is determining appropriate action, which may include discipline for the students. School officials were unavailable for comment after the game Friday night.

On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana announced it plans to investigate the incident, writing in a statement, “This incident sadly reflects how we are failing our children in teaching them mutual tolerance and respect for those of different backgrounds.”

Dustin Monroe sees a silver lining. He says the idea for the rally came from young people in his group who wanted to talk about race on the reservation.

"That's what I was waiting for," he said. "It can't come from me as the adult. It has to come from the youth and the community to make the change.

Lee Atwin, a junior at Two Eagle River School in Pablo south of Polson who was at the event said, "we definitely made a change in some of the students’ mind who came up to the fence and heard what we had to say."

Atwin said he was blown away and infuriated when he saw the pictures of the students’ shirts and coming to the rally is a way for him to speak out against racial discrimination.

"We just want equality, to not be discriminated against or mistreated in a place where everyone is supposed to be accepted," he said. 

There was a larger than usual police presence at the game, which ended calmly after the Polson Pirates routed the Whitefish Bulldogs. 

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